If war breaks out between China and the United States, there is a high probability that the precipitating factor will be the South China Sea. The United States is currently running another of its so-called “freedom of navigation” exercises in the region, employing no less than two aircraft carriers, together with their supporting armada of warships. The western media regularly report these naval exercises but rarely if ever is the historical situation put into any kind of context.
There are in fact a number of important features of this confrontation between China and the United States that are seldom if ever discussed. A complaint by the Philippines to the Permanent Court of Arbitration received a judgement on 12 July 2016. The court ruled that there was no evidence of China having exercised exclusive control over the sea or its resources at any time. Therefore, the court ruled, there was no legal basis to the so-called “9 Dash Line” that China claimed to be within its exclusive jurisdiction.
China rejected the court’s findings. This was hardly surprising from a purely historical point of view as China is able to demonstrate extensive control over the region going back hundreds of years, as Jianming Shen detailed in a lengthy scholarly analysis back in 2002.
But historical situations are often of dubious relevance in the world of modern geopolitics. They are certainly not relevant in helping to understand the attitude and behaviour of the contemporary government in Beijing. But that is only part of the story. Historical precedents are certainly of no interest to the United States and Australia in their pursuit of what they are pleased to call “freedom of navigation” exercises in waters thousands of kilometres distant from their respective borders.
This however, is simply empty verbiage. Neither country is able to point to a single incident of such free passage of civilian ships being in any way hindered. Given that at least 80% of China’s seaborne exports traverse the South China Sea, China of all nations has the greatest interest in unimpeded freedom of passageway.
It would be both illogical and counter-productive for China to engage in any exercise that jeopardised the freedom of passage of civilian ships. Apart from its own vested interest,